Language: English

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

From the contemporary to the ancient, this week's roundup of literary news covers Argentina, Latin America, and Hong Kong.

This week, we’re taking a look at the precise and haunting work of a thrilling young Argentinian writer, celebrating and revelling in Latin American Indigenous literatures, and queuing up for a veritable mélange of literary and artistic events in the international hub of Hong Kong. It’s been a pretty good month.

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large for Chile, reporting from Buenos Aires and Berlin:

On January 1, 2019, the New York Times reviewed Megan McDowell’s powerful translation of Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s book of short stories, Mouthful of Birds (originally titled Pájaros en la boca). In this review, the Times reveals what fans of contemporary Latin American fiction have known for years: that Schweblin’s haunting, claustrophobic writing is fascinating and addictive. Admittedly, Schweblin had previously received ample praise from critics in both the Spanish-speaking and Anglophone world. Among other accolades, we might consider: in 2010, the British magazine Granta named her a top young Spanish-language writer; Schweblin is a winner of the prestigious Juan Rulfo short story prize; she appeared on the Bogotá 39 list (2017), which lauded the top 39 Spanish-language authors under 40 years of age. READ MORE…

Classic Philosophy Meets Arabic Language: A Dialogue with Professor Peter Adamson

A tenth-century resident of Baghdad could read Arabic versions of just about everything by Aristotle that we can read today.

The great Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries changed the Near East and beyond politically, culturally, and, in a particularly profound and lasting way, linguistically, resulting in the near hegemony of the Arabic language. This new Islamic world took shape around an original and powerful new religion, but the consolidation of an Islamic civilisation was also a period of immense cultural exchange and mutual influence, not only from fellow Abrahamic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity, but also from the world of classical Mediterranean antiquity. Indeed, while knowledge of classical Greek science and philosophy fell into virtual oblivion in the Christian West, Islamic scholars kept the tradition alive by means of large scale translation projects and sophisticated philosophical works, from the Persian Avicenna to Baghdad’s legendary house of learning and the Andalusian polymath Averroes. In this interview, Professor Peter Adamson of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München talks us through this fascinating and often overlooked period in philosophical history by exploring the works of translation that made it possible.

Jonathan Egid (JE): By the time the grand translation projects of the early Islamic world began, the wonders of classical Greek philosophy had attained the status of ancient wisdom, almost one thousand years old and already much discussed and much translated. How did the works of Greek thinkers come to be translated into Arabic, and what was the interest in these ancient and foreign ideas?

Peter Adamson (PA): This was a process that unfolded over the course of centuries. The translation movement begins already in the eighth century CE and continues well into the tenth century. It was basically an initiative of the elites under the Abbasid caliphate, including even caliphs themselves and the caliphal family, who also had philosophers as court scholars. For instance, al-Kindī, the first philosopher to make explicit use of Hellenic materials in his own writing, was tutor to a caliph’s son and dedicated his most important work to the caliph himself. The translators were well paid experts, so this was a very deliberate and expensive undertaking managed from the top down. It should, however, be said that it was not something that was undertaken in a vacuum. For quite a long time there had already been translations made from Greek into Syriac and other Semitic languages, and these were a model for the Arabic translations (sometimes literally: it was known for works to be translated first into Syriac for the purpose of making an Arabic version on that basis). Also I would say the translation movement had a kind of momentum of its own: whereas at first the texts to be translated were really selected by the elite and for a variety of practical or political motives, eventually they get to the stage where they are translating the entire output of certain thinkers, or at least everything they can get their hands on, in a kind of completist project. So for instance, one of the greatest translators, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, was clearly trying to translate whatever he could by Galen, the most important Greek medical authority, while his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn worked his way through Aristotle.

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On Yu Yoyo, Language, and the Unsayable

from solitude I try to excavate / the human / but what I pull off are hairs from the haunches / of an animal

Poetry is a never-ending lesson in precision. The distillation of thirst, the evocation of experience, the cauterization of an open wound. Between the poets of the world and their various works there is a common acknowledgement of restraint—there is only so much we can do with words, and only so much words can mean. Claude Lévi-Strauss originated the term “floating signifier” to describe language that has only vague or contextual denotation, and in our contact with literature we gradually come to understand that such abstraction is the enemy of poetry. So we step gingerly around the words we know contain too much to unpack. Words like “hurt,” or “death,” or “love.”

Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.

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Translation Tuesday: “Forbidden to pass by and stay” by Oriette D’Angelo

I allied with your former lovers / emerged victorious / in the midst of the void

In this week’s Translation Tuesday, we are witnesses to a protest pulled forth from the body by outrage, sorrow, and an inherited music. Oriette D’Angelo’s poem is set to a revolutionary thrum of defiance against injustice. As we move with its lines, we arrive at a place that is not quite as simple as solace, but a space that resounds with the necessity for love. 

Forbidden to pass by and stay

My country is a protest march
a cry of rage
with thunder and dance music

You couldn’t handle the birds sleeping on my forehead
you fractured the entire structure of my deformed breasts
squeezed the throat to silence my body
so it wouldn’t scream:                    I don’t like what you say!

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Start your weekend with up-to-the-minute literary dispatches from around the world!

This week, we highlight a new Latinx literary magazine, an award-winning Catalan poet and translator, and a German-American literary festival in New York. We also learn about a Salvadoran who hopes to increase access to literature in his city by raising enough funds to build and stock a new library.

Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large for El Salvador, reporting from El Salvador

The Fall 2018 debut of Palabritas, an online Latinx literary magazine founded by Ruben Reyes Jr., is good news for Latinx writers from a variety of genres, especially those who are unpublished. Palabritas’ creation was inspired by a night of celebration of spoken word, poetry, and performances hosted by Fuerza Latina, a pan-Latinx organization of Harvard College. Reyes, a Harvard student and the son of Salvadoran immigrants, felt it was important to give access to unpublished writers from Latinx communities that are often ignored, such as LGBTQ+, the diaspora, and mixed-race communities. By providing a space for Latinx writers from all communities, Reyes hopes to minimize the exclusivity of published writers and bring them side-by-side with previously unpublished writers in the magazine.

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Translating Zahia Rahmani: An Interview with Matt Reeck

I would say translating allows the translator to find new parts of him/herself, instead of leaving parts behind.

“I’m always surprised by how docile American intellectuals are when they enter the public space,” says Matt Reeck, the translator of Zahia Rahmani’s strikingly bold “Muslim”: A Novel. In the course of a wide-ranging interview with Asymptote Assistant Editor Erik Noonan, Reeck aims to challenge that dominant paradigm of always being “on our best behaviour.”

In our most in-depth Book Club interview to date, Reeck sifts through the “layers of imperial cultural history in Algeria”, makes an eloquent plea for the widening of the capital/cultural space currently allotted to translation, and suggests that “the translation of texts that are already domesticated work[s] against translation in a broader sense.”

Erik Noonan (EN): Discussing the role of the translator in your statement for the National Endowment for the Arts, you say that “In a globalized world, while we know more about many parts of the world that we didn’t have access to previously, often what we know seems to get cemented quickly into easy stereotypes. Then, in a way, we don’t know much more at all; we just know what we think we know.” Dealing with the potential of certain texts to expand our knowledge of the world, you also say, in a piece in The Los Angeles Review: “While university presses help by publishing some of these [truly exotic] works, they don’t take on others: the manuscript must match a list, and this list consolidates established emphases of teaching and research.” Your work includes research and teaching in the Comparative Literature Department at UCLA, I believe, as well as translation. How is your teaching related to your research and your translating, and has that relationship changed in any way over time?

Matt Reeck (MR): I’m interested in many things, and they don’t all necessarily fit anyone’s idea of a single pursuit, a single trajectory, a single work. But they do for me. They are unified by being the things I’m interested in! It would be nice to be able to teach things that match my translating interests and my research interests, but to date I’ve been able to do that only here and there. Fingers crossed this will change soon.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly guide to biggest news in world literature.

We’re starting this month with news of literary awards, festivals, and translation parties to distract you from the last few weeks of winter! From the Bergen International Literary Festival and a Mother Tongues translation party to the European Union Prize for Literature and the PEN America Literary Awards, we have you covered with all of this week’s most important literary news.

Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from the Bergen International Literary Festival, Norway

A literary event in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city and Europe’s wettest, doesn’t quite feel complete without a few minutes spent outside the venue—some people smoking, some talking with the writers, some watching the rain drip slowly into their beer. At Bergen’s first International Literary Festival, all participants were presented with free umbrellas, but the weekend (an extended weekend, beginning on Valentine’s Day and ending on February 17th) was miraculously close to remaining rain-free.

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Ambiguity and Bilingual Art: Pavel Arseniev’s Reported Speech in Review

Through art like Arseniev’s poetry, we gain a toehold, however momentary, from which we are better able to grasp the present and prepare a future.

Reported-Speech-Cover-Spread-Final-768x520

Reported Speech by Pavel Arseniev, Cicada Press, 2018

Reviewed by Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large

I tell my students that literature does things, but I prefer to do so in even less polished terms. From a more abstract perspective, I see current attacks on the humanities (especially literature) in the United States and elsewhere as being so vicious precisely because of the fact that literature does do things. It changes how we, as humans, relate to and understand others, as well as ourselves.

That said, there are moments when I profoundly doubt this. For example, I was recently discussing the fabricated crisis at the US-Mexico border and Trump’s wall with someone I had just met. During our discussion, this person informed me that Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s nonfiction All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the US Borderlands, a work that gives a nuanced, highly sensitive portrait of the US-Mexico border, actually serves to justify that border’s further militarization. It was like being told by someone with a very serious face that Shelley’s “Ozymandius” is a laudatory poem on the subject of indelible human achievement or that Swift’s A Modest Proposal provided a brilliant roadmap for the betterment of the Irish economy. And yet, even when my doubts about literature and its power dominate my thoughts, events like the murder of Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashzoub snap me back to reality. Literature matters, so much so that in other parts of the world literature can get you killed, even as I safely type this up in my home in the United States. Perhaps this will soon be the case here, too.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Join as us we celebrate indigenous writers, intercultural connection, and the importance of linguistic diversity.

This week, we return with three dispatches exploring multicultural and multilingual connection. We begin with a reflection on the work of Humberto Ak’abal, an influential Indigenous poet who wrote in both K’iche’ Maya and Spanish. We also explore the multilayered dialogue between China and New York in the Hong Kong literary scene, and get an exciting firsthand account of the recent Creative Multilingualism conference in the UK.

 Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-at-Large, reporting from Guatemala

As declared by the United Nations, 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. According to their website, of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on the planet, over 2,500 are currently endangered. In Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and around the world, many hope this global recognition will lead to wider acceptance of Indigenous languages, as well as to increased opportunities for their oral and written expression.

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An Interview with Asja Bakić

It seems to me that people today tend to underestimate Eros in literature when it’s obvious that the best books are full of it.

Asja Bakić’s short-story collection Mars, translated by Jennifer Zoble, is slated for release by the Feminist Press in March of 2019. Though she’s a prolific poet, short-story writer, translator, and blogger in the former Yugoslavia, Mars will be her first publication in English. Bakić grew up in a turbulent Tuzla, Bosnia, lives now in Zagreb, Croatia, and laments the limitations that national borders place on literary exchange. The twists and turns in her speculative narratives leave readers suspended in a heady no-man’s-land between Earth, Mars, and the moon; life, death, and purgatory. Bakić speaks with Asymptote’s Assistant Editor Lindsay Semel about translation, Eros in literature, and the proliferation of ideas.

Lindsay Semel (LS): You often participate in literary events around the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe. Can you tell me about what you’re seeing there? What interests or bothers you? What trends are emerging? Which voices are notable? How is it different for you, interacting in virtual and physical spaces as an artist?

Asja Bakić (AB): Well, I am seeing my friends. We all know each other. Most of us were born in the same country in the eighties; the language is still the same if you ask me. It doesn’t matter if I go to Belgrade, Novi Sad, Skopje or Tuzla—it feels like home. The problem is that the crude political divide doesn’t let us read each other the way we should. I try to pay attention to what is published in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, but I fail miserably. The borders do not let books go through, so you have a Croatian author who must publish their book in the same language three times—for the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian markets, which is ridiculous. We have four versions of Elena Ferrante. Do we really need to publish the same book repeatedly? Wouldn’t it be better if we were to translate and publish different and new voices? That is why I prefer the internet. You find your friends there, you read each other, you comment—it is livelier. The internet is more real nowadays, because it doesn’t try to deny common ground.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

From doublespeak in São Paulo and migrant caravans in El Salvador to a very British dystopia, catch up on the latest in world literature!

We’re back this week with dispatches from three countries where literature and politics have been interacting in unexpected ways: Brazil, El Salvador, and the UK. In response to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Central American migration to the US, and the Brexit negotiations, museums and literary communities in these countries have been producing thoughtful exhibitions, fiction, and criticism that reflect on national identity and uncertain political futures. 

Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large for Brazil, reporting from Brazil

It is hot and humid in Brazil, and long summer days provide opportunities for new authors and space for reflection about writing as political resistance. Early career authors have an opportunity to submit their work for the SESC Prize for Literature, which is open for submissions from January 9 through February 14, when unpublished authors can submit their manuscripts; the Record Publishing Group will release winning texts.

For Brazilian writers interested in producing their own literature beyond the traditional market, 2019 also offers new opportunities. Graphic artist Rodrigo Okuyama hosts a series of free workshops on zine-making at the Centro Cultural São Paulo. On Saturdays from January 12-26, participants can learn about format, illustration techniques, and how to marry narrative content with visual form. These workshops allow new voices to join a growing independent publishing scene in Brazil, where small collectives like PANTIM work at the intersection of literature and the visual arts. READ MORE…

“US” Poets Foreign Poets: A Computationally Assembled Anthology

Identities are analysed. Close neighbours may not be connected. Distant poems may be connected by one edge or less.

Computational poetry is possibly one of the most exciting literary developments of our technology-reliant age. Using algorithms and machines, digital poetry is a product of our modern world, its history stretching only as far back as the mid-20th century. In this essay, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, tells us about an even more radical anthology. “US” Poets Foreign Poets brings together the world of digital poetry with more traditional, page-based poetry, finding connections between wildly different poems, expressed in graphs as well as two languages (English and Romanian). Joining MARGENTO are three contributors to the anthology, as well as the anthology’s publisher, who reflect on the publication and the implications it has for translating, and for making digital and page-based poetry comprehensible and connectable to each other.

What is digital poetry? Simply put, it is poetry that fundamentally relies on digital media for its ‘composition’ and ‘publication.’ What do we mean by ‘fundamentally’? This refers to the fact that the (sub)genre would not be possible, would not exist if it were not for the digital. ‘Traditional’ poetry, also known as ‘page [or page-based] poetry’ could still be written (even if virtually nobody does that anymore) by ‘putting pen to paper,’ whereas digital poetry would simply not be around without digital technology.

But things—and distinctions—are not really as simple as they may seem, and (as is often the case with definitions), when looking closely these definitions actually branch out into both elemental and complex ‘undefineds’ or undefinables. The many questions above are only a crude testimony to all that (and it can only get worse, as you’ll see in a second). What does, for instance, ‘composition’ in our tentative definition above stand for? In digital technology, it has more to do with algorithms and machinic procedures than the imaginative and ‘original,’ or deeply ‘personal,’ human use of language. It is about manipulating a (mathematical and operational) language behind the ‘natural’ language that is thus artificially (re)generated.

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An Interview with Alexander Dickow

I think poetry and translation have always been intertwined.

Alexander Dickow has been Asymptote’s Communications Manager since April 2017. He is also a talented translator: in 2018, he received a prestigious PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to translate Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest, and was a runner-up in Asymptote’s 2013-2014 Close Approximations Translation Contest. As a scholar at Virginia Tech, Alexander Dickow specializes in French and Francophone literatures and cultures. And as if all of these activities didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s also a respected bilingual poet. He published his very first book, Caramboles, a French/English bilingual poetry collection, with publisher Argol in 2008, and a French poetry collection, Rhapsodie curieuse, with Louise Bottu in 2017. His first poetry collection in English, Trial Balloons, appeared in 2012 with Corrupt Press, and his latest work, Appetites, has just been published in 2018 by MadHat Press. As a bilingual poet herself, Asymptote’s Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) Lou Sarabadzic wanted to know more about his views on multilingualism, poetry, and the creative process.

Lou Sarabadzic: Your latest collection, Appetites, has just been published by MadHat Press. In a 2016 interview, you said that you were “fatally allergic to titles.” However, with such a strong theme connecting your poems, eloquently announced by a single word, “Appetites,” I have to ask: what came first? Was it the collection’s title? The idea? Or individual poems which happened to share this common theme?

Alexander Dickow: The poems came first—I wrote a whole slew in a short period, maybe a month, with the culinary themes. It occurred to me at some point that more or less everything I’ve done is related in some way to eating: my first book was Caramboles, which designates the starfruit, among other things, and it contains a culinary poem or two also, and Rhapsodie curieuse, in French, is based around the central emblem of the persimmon. My first publisher found the title Caramboles, but the others were my choice. So I guess what came first was the obsession—then the poems, and then the actual title. Of course, food is what I refer to elsewhere as a “paravent” topic—i.e. it’s a vehicle for talking about something else, much like love or politics as subjects of poems.

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